FOSS in Design: What is FOSS and why does it matter?

27 Mar, 2018 — 4 min

FOSS (“Free and Open Source Software”) is the idea that software you use should be free (more on what free means later) and that the code should all be publically available to all.

In FOSS we refer to two kinds of “free.” The first is “free as in cost” (also known as “gratis,” “free as in beer,” and “free as in pizza”). This means one is allowed to use the software, but that’s it. Beyond what the programmers allow one typically can’t contribute anything back to the code, and even more often you can’t even see it. “Freeware” is under this category. The other kind of free is “free as in freedom” (aka “libre"). This kind of free can be defined as giving the right to…

  1. run the software anywhere you want (including for free (as in cost))
  2. read and study how the code works
  3. revise/repurpose the code to do whatever you want
  4. redistribute both the original and your modified versions freely (as in freedom)

The four freedoms exist in a variety of different wordings, but the basic points remain the same. Additionally, this is the “free” that is referred to in the FOSS acronym. The most important point of libre is that it doesn’t restrict what you (the user) can do.

For example, to qualify for the freedom to run, the software has to be able to used both commercially and non-commercially. This is something that many free-as-in-cost pieces of software don’t let you do. If you want to distribute your software under an open source license, GitHub has a guide for picking which one to use.

Why does this matter to me personally? (aka, the short version)

  1. It’s free (as in cost) to use. No licensing fees, no subscriptions required
  2. This project has a specific target on students.

You might have access to software as a student, but what happens when you go beyond your education? Many free (as in cost) licenses for students have a clause in them prohibiting commercial use. If you decide to take an academic project and turn it into a business (or similar), this could be a problem. Additionally, when you’re out of college you won’t necessarily have access to the software, and it may cost more than you’re willing to spend.

I pieced together a few licenses of common software an animator might use (at least, based on courses here) and quickly found myself over $400/mon. Granted, animation is not everyone’s use case, but you can still find yourself in that position rather quickly.

You might already be using it…

Try going to the “about”/“legal notices” page of many programs (sometimes under “help”) and you might find a large list of FOSS software and libraries that were used to build it. Even if it’s not in all your software, it runs a significant part of the internet. If you’re reading this from my blog, Wordpress is FOSS, the server running the blog has over a dozen pieces of FOSS mentioned just within the web panel/documentation, much less the many more in the Linux system under it.

Additionally, you might be using Creative Commons-licensed assets (which despite not being software tends to fall in the FOSS field). Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and others fall under this. Or, you might be using an open standard.

Beyond software

There are three important concepts I would like to highlight that aren’t software specifically.

The first is public domain. Work in the public domain has had its copyright expire (or been waived) and is freely (as in freedom) available to use however you wish. You might not want to put all of your work in the public domain, but it’s useful to know and there are many public domain pieces available for your use. Public domain is often done using the CC0 license to waive rights.

The second important concept is Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a license you can put on your work to allow others to freely use it. Common CC licenses are CC-BY which requires attribution, and CC-BY-SA which requires attribution and your work to also be CC-BY-SA. Also be wary of the -NC and -ND varients which limit your ability to reuse them.

The third important concept I would like to highlight is open standards (sometimes called “open formats”). Open standards refer to file formats in which the specification is publically available and unrestricted and power a significant part of computing, including HTML, PDF, SVG, GIF, and (recently) MP3. As such, they can easily be implemented by developers and as a LibreOffice founder puts it, “[then] you [the user] can use whatever software you want [even if it’s proprietary].”

Conclusion

FOSS and related concepts build freedom and openness for users and encourage free distribution of work. As a user, this might simply mean to you that you don’t have to pay for the software or assets you use, but I would encourage you to look beyond the money and see what you can contribute.

Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and nothing here should be taken as legal (or otherwise) advice.


Updates:
2019/07/28: Content reflow